One of the big problems I have on this blog is writing reviews for books whose authors obviously have good intentions, often intentions I’m full in support of, but who have failed to, or cannot execute them properly. I want so much to like many books for how high they grasp, but chapter by chapter, sometimes line by line, too many elements of quality writing are missing to say they’ve grabbed anything but empty air. The real effect does not match the desired effect. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2015 Signal to Noise puts me in such a quandary.
Paranormal romance just a label, it’s entirely possible to write within the sub-genre and achieve living, breathing humans whose lives and stories have an effect or meaning beyond the page. Within the sub-genre it’s also possible to write cheesy melodrama. Signal to Noise is an attempt at the former that unintentionally hits upon the latter—the heart of the quandary.
We are introduced to Meche as she is returning to Mexico City in 2009 to attend the funeral of her estranged father. Earbuds tucked in and iPod in hand, she distances herself from her mother and friends, and reluctantly goes about organizing her father’s record collection and notes for a book he’d always intended to write. Cutting back to her teenage years in 1988, a time when being young meant rebelliousness, listening to music only you know is cool, hanging out with your pals, eating chips and drinking soda, and dealing with all the crap that teenagers deal with, the novel describes a year in Meche’s highschool life—a troubled time personally, but a time in which she and her closest friends discover they can weave spells with records.
As somewhat forced as the concept is (the supernatural via vinyl and circle dancing), Moreno-Garcia nevertheless makes it work at the structural level in the lives of the two people the novel focuses on. Balancing symbolism with plot device, Meche and her friend Sebastien experience all of the drama of being in high school through the magical spinning discs. This, along with narrative design, are the novel’s high points.
Jeff VanderMeer writes in Wonderbook, “Buying in to stereotype and cliché about your characters condemns them to act in ways that are based on false ideas about people in the real world.” Stereotype the bane of Signal to Noise, simply put, it prevents a better novel. As realistic as Moreno-Garcia wanted her story to be (save the magic records, natch), the characters, their situations, the thoughts motivating their decisions, the dialogue, and decisions themselves rarely if ever get beyond predictable one-dimensionality. Meche is the classic misunderstood teen from a troubled home who is angry at the world—and amazingly still acts that way at almost 40 years of age. Sebastien is the classic intelligent young man coming from a broken home who dreams of what he can’t have. Daniela is the classic ‘third character necessary to relieve tension between the two main characters.’ (The friendship is never motivated. Daniela is just there—like one of her Barbies on a shelf—at convenent times.) Meche’s father is the classic drunk who dreams through the bottom of his glass. Natalia is the classic over-anxious, bitter, nagging mother. Constantino is the classic handsome bully. And on and on. All the characters are classic, but as they fail to move beyond the walls of their stereotype, do not achieve anything more. A pity as the characters are the backbone of the novel.
The situtations they find themselves in are equally ‘classic’. The following could have come from a bad ‘80s movie. “Sebastian turned around. [Constantino] was there with his buddies in tow, all five of them dressed exactly the same: sweaters tied around the shoulders, polo shirts, even the same haircut.” The following is a bit of dialogue coming after one of the most egregiously portrayed molestation scenes I’ve ever read:
“Stop kidding and let us in.”
“I’m not kidding. I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Come on. We’re not going to go. What’s up with you?”
“If I tell you... you can’t tell anyone else.”
If only the highschool portion of the narrative were to retain this YA sentiment, all could be forgiven. But the so-called adult portions of the novel are just as simplistically rendered. It’s as if Meche and the others have not changed at all in the two decades that have passed between the two narrative halves. The following spot of dialogue passes between two adults:
“I can’t see you again,” she said. Her voice sounded dinted and strained.
“Compartments. Plus, it’s not as if I like you.”
Sebastian laughed lightly.
“Then pretend to like me for a couple more days.”
“Because you’ll be gone after that.”
Teenagers, ok. But nearly a forty-year old man and woman… Suffice to say, literary fiction contains much more plausible interaction between adults. (At the end of this review are other immature lines taken from the novel.)
In the end, Signal to Noise is a novel that wants to be humanist paranormal romance, but due to poor execution, has trouble getting past mediocre melodrama. It wants to be that novel that makes the reader stop and think what it’s like to be in domestic situations like Meche or Sebastien. It wants you to feel for them, to gain perspective, and to achieve a higher level of understanding about the greater state of society and the variety of people around you. Stereotyping kills this. Sure, the ingredients are in place, just not developed maturely enough or with singular enough detail. Moreno-Garcia has obviously attended workshops, read about the craft, knows how to setup a good story (there are few problems with structure and character placement), but none of it has been brought to breathing life, something that is necessary if the novel is to achieve real empathy from the reader. If Signal to Noise bore the YA stamp, all could forgiven. But, unfortunately, I think it was intended as an adult book—a disappointment as Moreno-Garcia is the author of one of my favorite essays from this year on ‘strong female characters’…
The following are some quotes from the novel that… lack subtlety:
1. “Books,” Meche muttered, opening the cassette and reading the song list. “Forever Young.”
“It’s like a soundtrack for us. The soundtrack of our lives.”
2. “Not magic. Not spells. Before the magic. We got each other.”
3. “Don’t forget I’m taking you to the movies.”
“Go back to planet deluded,” she muttered.
She closed the door behind him and plucked a record sleeve from a pile.
“What do you think, Steve Perry?” she asked, smirking at the single—it was Oh Sherrie—and then tossing it to the floor because she realised she was talking to an inanimate object.
4. “Gang members could dismantle a car in five minutes flat and beat you for your lunch money.”
5. “Sounds like a book I read,” she said. “It was shelved under ‘sappy.’